Dunstan Curtis – DSC, VC, CdeG, CBE – fought during the War to destroy Fascism and preserve freedom, and has spent 25 years working for the unity of Europe. English in manner, European in experience, he is perpetually interested in learning “what makes each nationality tick.”
When a strictly traditional British fly fisherman puts grasshoppers on a pin to catch trout à la française, there is more at stake than a compromise over warring conceptions of sport. Here is evidence of a development in homo sapiens – the new European.
If any one man has the right to be called a progenitor of the British European, it is Dunstan Curtis. Not only for his adaptability as a fisherman, but because he has put in more time as a European civil servant since the war than any other Englishman. When he was awarded the CBE on his resignation as deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, a national newspaper described him then as “one man who has kept a toehold for Britain in Europe”.
Now, as Secretary General of the European Conservative Group at the European Parliament in Luxembourg, he can look back on 25 years working for unity in Europe, and the inclusion of the United Kingdom in that unity. He says now of the progress of that movement: “In the Council of Europe, we were really talking in philosophical terms, now the Community as a whole is a strictly practical organisation which does things. We have moved from the study to the workshop.”
So has he. This is a man who spent the war in Coastal forces, a sailor in the buccaneering tradition of Drake, a man of action. He was decorated for great daring and courage, was a hero of St Nazaire leading the attack on the German’s great dry dock – an Atlantic base to the battleship Tirpitz – which has been called “the greatest raid of all“, and beat the Army to the scene to accept the surrender of Kiel. (After St Nazaire, Curtis was recruited by Ian Fleming, then assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence, to command the Naval wing of No 30 Assault Unit, an operational assault force which was highly successful in the North African and Sicilian campaign. This unit was reformed to take part in the Allied campaign in France from D-Day onwards.)
Immediately after the war, he stood for Parliament as a Liberal, and featured in the gossip columns of the popular newspapers as a flamboyant and red-bearded extravert. Yet, in order to bring about his ideals for Europe, he has abandoned the limelight and the outward role of the man of action to become in effect the perfect right-hand man, an incomparable intellectual Jeeves to the influential men of Europe.
On the surface, the reconciliation of the two extremes seems incredible, but underneath they have in common an over-riding concern for European unity. Even before the Second World War, Dunstan Curtis believed in European unity. Yet he is the sort of man, in his reserved friendliness, in the slightly formal good manners which are the tip of an iceberg of self-discipline, who in darkest Africa or the snows of Alaska must be recognised as English, Trim, sandy, his English fair skin threatened by freckles, he looks, as he strolls with a basket of wine bottles up the village street where he lives outside Luxembourg like a happy schoolmaster with a distinguished past in the local cricket club.
He is now constructing Utopia in Europe. It will not be Heaven on earth, though; just a place where people will be free to live as they like because, as part of a well-conducted great power, they need not be afraid of each other or their enemies. He does not want a united Europe to produce a typical European; he is much more interested in the differences between people, and in making these work together.
This was his answer first to De Gaulle, and now to Enoch Powell and others in this country who fear that we will wash our national characteristics down the plughole of a European bath. He smiled a little ruefully as he said: “The French have lost none of their Frenchness, nor are the Italians less Italian. Honestly, I think that the idea that joining Europe might make us lose our national identity was dreamed up to hide the fact that people are subconsciously afraid that it meant admitting Britain is no longer a great power in her own right.”
On the contrary, he feels that as a united Europe becomes established, minority groups like the Welsh and the Scots will get more opportunity to air their national characteristics. He himself feels no conflict between being European and being British. He was nicknamed ‘Froggy’ at his first school because of the French accent acquired from his French nurse, and says that he is still remembered in local shops in Paris and in Strasbourg as Monsieur l’Anglais, because he has made no attempt to lose the English accent he now has when speaking French. “It’s more fun not to pretend to be French, but to get them talking to you because you’re English, comparing things.” Perhaps he takes some pride in this resistance to conforming. There cannot be many men who would recall with amusement rather than pain the isolation implied in being singled out like that at school.
All his life, in his own quiet way, Curtis has obviously been able to stand alone. This confidence lends him authority, but his years of adapting to different peoples in his homes throughout Europe have kept him from hardening strong opinion into self opinion. This means that he creates in people talking to him a sense of security; here, they feel, is one man with all the accumulated wisdom of an elder statesman who, at the age of 61, is still able to adapt happily to change and meet new ideas with real excitement, rather than see them as as a threat to any set of established rules. Someone said to me of him: “He is one person no newspaper methods could exploit, because however hard you try, you’ll never find feet of clay. He hasn’t got them.”
He did once publicly show irritation. When De Gaulle finally vetoed British entry into the EEC in 1962, Dunstan Curtis resigned as Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe. “I did it out of frustration, because it was obvious that in the end, it was all, going to take much longer. I think now it was good for me, too, because I had become stale.” He admits to “strong feelings” about De Gaulle, then smiles and will go no further.
Any irritation he may feel now about the tangles of bureaucracy and adverse reactions to European problems from Westminster is tempered by his realisation of the difficulties under which the European MPs work. “They have a double mandate. They are nominated by their national parliaments, and to do both jobs fully places an impossible strain on them.”
His job now, as Secretary-General of the European Conservative Group, entails constant meetings with counterparts from other member countries, advising and organising and fact-finding for the representatives of national parties who have a common Conservative approach to European problems. He acts as a sparring partner preparing his prize fighters for the next bout, giving them all the benefit of his years learning the tricks of the European trade. He runs, in effect, a Conservative Research Department, and part of his brief is to work out group policy. He works, in Luxembourg, amid a great pile of law and reference books, his back to a view of trees from the ultra-modern No. 2 building of the European Parliament, surrounded by pretty, well-educated English secretaries who talk of driving to the hypermarket over the Belgian border to do the weekend shopping and jabber in a different language every time they lift the phone. Meanwhile, Dunstan Curtis talks to everyone, treads his way adroitly through a bureaucratic maze and travels to Brussels once a week, Strasbourg for a week once a month, seven months of the year. When he can, he drives, because he hates flying, but this travelling tires him.
He puts a lot of energy into listening to what other people have to say. And he listens as intently to shopkeepers on the state of today’s vegetables as to politicians on the state of the nations. With his Group, he is working towards the creation of a new European Centre Party, which would include the Christian Democrats (with whom they are already allied) and the Liberals, with the Socialists and Communists on the left, and the newly-formed European Progressive Democrats, consisting of the French Gaullists and Fianna Fail, on the right.
One feels a Centre Party tag would suit him better than Conservative. He stood for Parliament himself in 1945 as a Liberal, and became a Conservative “for European reasons. They were the only party likely to bring us in.” Before the war, he was a member of the Federal Union, a group trying to bring about some sort of Federal arrangement between Britain, France and the United States to counteract Hitler’s growth of power.
It is his fascination with the differences between peoples that has guided the way he has lived in Europe. Whether in Paris, Strasbourg, Wales or Luxembourg, he takes pains to fit in by learning what makes each nationality tick. He seems to study them almost on an academic level, seeking out the historical, political and moral influences that have made them what they are. “Dunstan’s so modest, he doesn’t realise why anyone would want to know about him,” said one of the Secretariat staff. Both he and his wife, Tony, like the simple life, though they have met and count as friends many of the world’s most influential academics, writers and philosophers, as well as politicians. They have a home in Wales, a country house where no one is allowed to shoot, and where they can watch rare Brent geese visit their stretch of water. They live, as they have throughout Europe, close to essentials. Tony (sic) Curtis, born in Australia, is learning Welsh, and loves Wales fiercely. She has just finished a book, a comparative study of nationalist movements in Wales, Brittany, and the Basque country, but points out: “There is no disagreement between Dunstan and me over Europe. If the European idea is taken to its logical conclusion, perhaps it is one way in which the small nations can have a say in their own future.” She trained as a sociologist, is now a writer, and has made her job fit a European scale, writing comparative social studies of, among other things, prisons throughout Europe, and housing estates outside two European centres.
They have lived in a fiat in Paris, in Strasbourg, and are now living in Saeul, a village near Luxembourg, where Dunstan Curtis will often spend a morning watching the smallholders next door at work, noting the pattern of their lives. Even after a few weeks in Saeul, where their country farmhouse stands on the short streets leading out of the village into the wooded hills, they were already at home, though their china still stood in packing cases outside the back door, and their pictures were still boxed up in the hall. There they are learning to live with wallpaper which looks like a competition for one-dimensional flower arrangement and contrasting floral curtains. They are testing their reactions to the local wine which Dunstan Curtis collects from the village Spar grocer, Lapsang Souchong tea, they bring back from trips to England, because the Earl Grey available locally is not what it used to be.
The routine does not change much, wherever they live. On Saturday mornings, they go shopping, with Mrs Curtis holding long discussions, French-style, about today’s spring chicken or the cooking time of a piece of veal. Dunstan Curtis makes a regular trip to the hat shop, where he leaves the laundry, and stands unabashed amongst the banks of wedding and confirmation tulle and sombre funeral straws, chatting about the state of trade. Already he is greeted in each shop as a regular; he can talk about and raise an interest in any topic, and the shopkeepers love him for it. Within only weeks of arriving in Luxembourg to set up the Conservative Secretariat, he knew the significance of every important historical building we passed. The one outstanding characteristic of the Luxembourg people that struck him was their dislike of colour – even paint on the buildings. “That’s one thing I regret about leaving France, losing their love of colour and of flower gardens,” he said ruefully, looking at the neat rows of onions and lettuces beside his house.
He explains his commitment to Europe as partly a temperamental thing. After Eton and Oxford, he studied at the Sorbonne and in Vienna, and qualified as a solicitor. He has consciously brought up his son and daughter, now both married and in Singapore and England respectively, to be European in outlook. They went to school in England, but went home every holiday to wherever their parents were based in Europe, “They became Europeans automatically,” he said.
After the War, he saw some sort of European union as essential if Britain was to get on her feet again, and he became Director in London of the European Movement, a group campaigning for the foundation of some form of European organisation which would lead to unity. Under Duncan Sandys and Joseph Retinger, Chairman and Secretary General of the Movement, he canvassed from country to country lobbying Heads of State to get their support. Finally the constitution recommended by the Movement was set up as the Council of Europe, and rather reluctantly adopted by Britain’s Foreign Minister, Ernest Bevin.
Dunstan Curtis was recruited to Strasbourg to organise the committees of the Assembly of the council, and was later elected deputy Secretary General. “That was not at all extraordinary. I had been in the European Movement, I knew how the Council was set up, and I had the habit of organising committee meetings on a European scale.” But the Council of Europe had no teeth; it was a talking forum. When Jean Monnet created the sideshoot which became the powerful Coal and Steel Community, Britain was not part of it. Dunstan Curtis is sad now to see how much ground Britain has lost; influence she could have had, and failed to have, on how the Community has developed. This was brought home to him in another context when he resigned from the Council of Europe and took a job advising British industry on European problems: “Some big companies have always thought European, but what was disconcerting was the absence of reaction from the medium-sized firms which could easily have got into Europe earlier and been bedded in before we joined.”
Convinced as he is of the importance of European unity, he sees that the Community cannot progress without drastic changes. “My personal feeling is that the Community must become one day what Winston Churchill called a ‘sort of United States of Europe’, with a Federal-type of constitution, and I don’t think it will work otherwise.”
Now that the Common Market is an established fact, discussions in the community over the next five years will concentrate on practical steps to build a new political Europe. The political line-up in the European Parliament will turn out to be not on traditional lines between socialist and non-socialist, but between those who want a Federal solution and those who don’t. The 60,000-dollar question is: What will be the relations between the European Community on the one hand and the national governments on the other?
“One thing is certain: the European Community must be recognised as having competence in foreign policy, and that includes defence.” Once this is accepted the European Community will be able to fulfil the function he has always hoped for it: “All the things that have made sense in our civilisation have come from Europe – the rule of law, respect for the rights of the individual – I think we have a sense of proportion missing elsewhere. After the experience of some of our countries which in the past have played the roles now assumed by the USA and the USSR, I don’t think it is being chauvinist to believe that we Europeans are more qualified to hold the ring – to keep the peace, if you like – in a way which respects the rights of all concerned. If we establish a European Union by 1980, as the Community countries have said they will, and if that can be done in a form which maintains the way of life and the values to which all our countries have contributed, we shall be able to make sure our civilisation has a human face, instead of being the sort of world George Orwell foretold for us in 1984.”
© Jane McLoughlin, 1971, 2016. All rights reserved.
Jane McLoughlin’s coming of age novel The Unfriended is about a generation of women, played out in Ireland | Quartet Books, London | September 2015 HB 340 pp | ISBN-13: 978-0704373945 | £15